Late summer-early fall hikes capture my attention since the season feels so short. There is a golden window of opportunity; the afternoon high alpine lightning storm are over, snow fields have dried out, the mosquito swarms have decreased, and there’s a gentle crispness in the air that makes a good trail sweat really comfortable, right before the first snowfall of winter hits.
This is a great time to get out there and enjoy the high country!
On Labor Day my hiking partner and I laced up our boots to get out to Lulu City – a historic mining ghost town within Rocky Mountain National Park. There are two ways to get to this nationally registered historic place – you can start from the Colorado River trailhead in Rocky Mountain National Park for an easier hike, or you can start from La Poudre Pass trailhead off Long Draw Road in Roosevelt National Forest for a slightly more challenging hike. This trail has a short window of opportunity since the Long Draw doesn’t open until July. You have three months of the year to knock this one out!
We decided to start at La Poudre Pass and hiked all the way through both ways – trailhead to trailhead and back, logging in a 16-mile day (18 according to fitbit, but who’s counting).
It was incredible. Not only was the scenery lovely and the history intriguing, but it was the highest mileage hike I’ve done yet. It felt like an awesome accomplishment.
Lulu City has always been one of those hiking spots of interest for me because of my deep fascination with history (and if you’re the same, then you need to read Forgotten Fort Collins, one of the sister websites in the local network that Fresh Air belongs to). It was a mining town established in 1880 by the Middle Park and Grand River Land Improvement Company after prospector Joe Shipler discovered silver in the area. In just a year, there were 200 people living there in 40 cabins and a number of businesses including a hotel, post office, courthouse and four timber mills.
Apparently the city only lasted for five years because the ore extracted was pretty crappy in quality and it didn’t make sense to continue running the city after considering expenses. So, 130-something years later, the mining city has been consumed by the earth with only a few remnants of foundations and walls remaining. Joe Shipler’s prospecting cabin hasn’t deteriorated as much and you can see the remaining walls on the Colorado River section of the trail. Most people think that when they hike to a ghost town, they’re going to see an abandoned silhouette of the Wild West. Not so much here, but I find it interesting nonetheless.
Aside from geeking out on early settler history, this hike reminded me of how important it is to have a detailed topography map with me in my pack – even on popular, well-worn trails.
Typically I skip the maps in my pack and take a photo of the map at the trailhead before I start a hike. I do this each and every time. (Note – I obviously do not do this if I’m in the backcountry going off-trail). Typically, it works out great. It doesn’t work out so well when there are often-deceiving social trails that veer off into various directions. This is exactly what happened on this system. This kind of situation seems to happen more often in Rocky Mountain National Park than any other place I hike, too (good lord, especially in the winter on snowshoe trails).
We started our hike with the trailhead map photo, and then proceed to take photos of each trail sign along the way too so that I could compare our location. We hiked through gorgeous thick forests and the Little Yellowstone, where bridges are still being replaced after the flood. Between the trailhead map and trail sign comparisons, we were able to figure out which way was which. Until we got to LuLu City.
We originally thought this hike was a smidge over 7 miles one-way, so we were prepared for a 14 mile day. NOPE! This hike is a little over 7 miles round trip. Once we got to Lulu City with hours, gear, and energy left for the day, we decided to hike the whole trail all the way though. Except, I had no idea where the trail really ended because the National Forest trailhead map didn’t go into details into Rocky Mountain National Park. And this is where I nearly face-palmed myself. “UGH. I should have brought a map so I know where we’re going and for how long!”
Fortunately, we ran into a National Park ranger who had a RMNP map for us. While it’s a fairly easy trail system to navigate and not get lost, you cannot come up with distance estimations, trail pace, and turnaround times without this info. Lesson learned.
The hike from trailhead-t0-trailhead was actually pretty easy if you don’t consider the distance. The trail is smooth without too much change in elevation. It’s not the prettiest trail in Rocky Mountain National Park, but it’s a great one for Roosevelt National Forest, especially considering the wildlife.
This hike became Wildlife bingo; we saw a bighorn sheep on the way up Poudre Canyon, moose on Long Draw Road, a huge bull elk in the trees from the Colorado River trail, and countless mule deer the whole day. Not to mention pika and a marmot as we got closer to the Colorado River trailhead.
We rarely took breaks during the hike to make sure we kept on schedule so that we’d make it back to the car at La Poudre Pass trailhead before dark. We stopped for a breather at Lulu City on the way back, assessed if we needed to filter any water (always pack your 10 essentials!), snacked and then hit the trail again.
From this point on, the hike became a slog – inch by inch, mile by mile – as it was all uphill. It was intense. My feet were on fire, my hips ached, my back was numb, and it took every ounce of both mental and physical endurance to keep on hiking. I haven’t been challenged like that in quite some time. It was great. There’s nothing like the feel you get at the end of a long day on the trail, and you get to take off your boots, slap on something more comfortable, and start planning on where you’re going to drink that refreshing post-hike beer. I LOVE IT.
So, if you’re looking for an easy hike or one hell of a challenge, wildlife viewing or history geeking, this trail has something for everyone.
Total Length: 3.5 miles one way to Lulu City
Beginning Elevation: 9,350 ft.
Peak Elevation: 10,175 ft